EPILOGUE

A.J. went to the county courthouse on the day of Sean Hanrahan's arraignment. It was not revenge or spite that motivated him, but he was compelled to be there for Johnny McBride. He just felt sorry for him because his parents were now both deceased, and no family member of his would be present in court.

A.J. was a little surprised, but not shocked, when Hanrahan pleaded guilty to all the charges including armed robberies, voluntary manslaughter of Johnny McBride, second-degree murder of Craig Larson and kidnapping of one Andrew Simon. The prosecutors and the defense attorneys must have made a plea bargain to take the capital punishment off the table.

On one hand, A.J. was relieved he wouldn't have to testify in court, but on the other hand, he was sorry that no one, except for a handful of individuals, would learn who Johnny was and how he had died without a trial. He'd be another nobody, just a name in the police and the court records.

When he left the courtroom, A.J. was surprised to see Rick entering the courthouse with a woman he'd never seen.

"Hey, A.J.!" Rick waved. "Everything okay?"

A.J. nodded. "Hanrahan pled guilty." He waited for Rick to introduce him to his companion.

"Joan, this is my brother, A.J. A.J., this is Mrs. Joan Paremski."

As A.J. wondered why his brother had brought her to meet him, Rick said, "She's Johnny's sister."

A.J. was stunned. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Mrs. Paremski, but I thought Johnny had no family."

"The police didn't know where to reach me right away because our parents passed away so many years ago, and that I don't use my maiden name and now live in Chicago."

Joan smiled a sad smile. Her speech had a beautiful southern lilt.

"I'm afraid you just missed Hanrahan's arraignment, Mrs. Par…"

"I didn't come here for that, Mr. Simon. I just wanted to thank you."

The unexpected words of gratitude caught A.J. by surprise. "Thank me?"

"After our parents passed, just about everyone gave upon Johnny: friends, college, rehab counselors, the police… I almost did. But you didn't—that's what your brother and a female officer at the San Diego police told me. You didn't let go even after Johnny was gone. I cannot tell you how much it means to me…and to Johnny."

A.J. simply nodded for acknowledgement.

"Johnny was such a bright boy and showed exceptional aptitude for science and math at a very young age. Our parents were so proud of him when he was accepted to MIT."

"MIT?" Rick couldn't hide his amazement. "Any parents would be proud to have a son attending MIT."

"He was on Dean's List in the first year. Then during his sophomore year, he started failing classes…" Her eyes were full of pain and downcast.

"Drugs?" asked Rick bluntly.

"Yes," said she sotto voce. "When he was lucid, he absolutely hated what addiction had done to him, to his family and friends, but he wasn't strong enough to beat it."

Rick and A.J. wondered what sort of brilliant career Johnny might have had had he stayed clean.

"I'm so sorry to hear that," reiterated A.J.

Joan shook her head. "He had his shot at life… No, he had several shots at it with his family and friends behind him, but he blew it."

She seemed sorrowful yet serene. Her understated grief broke A.J.'s heart.

"I just wanted to thank you—both of you—in person before I take Johnny home, to Greensboro, South Carolina, where our parents are buried."

Joan was poised and at peace with herself. "I can see you two are very close," said she regarding the two brothers before her.

"I loved Johnny—we all did, but there's a huge age gap between us, and I was more like his second mother, or aunt than his sister growing up. Sometimes I wonder…" She trailed off lost in the old memories and introspection.

When she returned to the present, she smiled at Rick and A.J. "You two are so lucky to have each other, to have someone to lean on."

A.J. just nodded; there was nothing needed to be said.

"Yeah, my brother keeps me on the straight and narrow," said Rick with a subdued smile.

After a long embrace with each investigator and prolonged good-byes, Joan left the courthouse holding her head high.

"There goes one tough lady," sighed Rick with admiration.

"As tough as Scarlett O'Hara," agreed A.J. "Too bad Johnny wasn't."

"You know, A.J., I hate to admit it, but I'm glad you stuck to this case."

"Me too. But I couldn't have solved it without you. As a matter of fact, you did most of the legwork," said A.J. graciously.

"That's true." Rick wasn't exactly what one would call a humble man. "Come to think of it, if I hadn't called you from Blue Moon the other night, you'd never have had a chance to get involved in the first place."

"Don't push it, Rick." A.J. gave his brother a look of annoyance.

As they stepped outside the courthouse, A.J. went one direction, and Rick, the opposite.

"Rick? Where do you think you're going? Aren't you going back to the office?"

"Yeah, but I parked my truck over there."

"You drove four city blocks?" A.J. rolled his eyes.

"I was driving Mrs. Paremski, and she was anxious to meet you here."

A.J. knew it was just an excuse. It would take much longer to find a parking space in the vicinity of the building than to walk four blocks. Still, he changed the course of direction to follow his brother shaking his head.

Passing by a police car parked in front of the courthouse, the brothers almost jumped with a start when they heard someone in the backseat shout, "Well, well, well. Here come the Simons!"

The biker with a crooked nose they had met at Blue Moon was in the backseat, his wrists in handcuffs.

"Hammer! You're finally slinking back to the hole you crawled out of, I see," jeered Rick.

Hammer? Rick and I were messing with a biker called Hammer? Suddenly, A.J. didn't feel so lucky to have his brother anymore.

"So, did you get busted for being criminally stupid, or criminally ugly, or both?"

Seeing Hammer restrained and locked up in a squad car, Rick decided to have a little fun with him to get even. A.J. wanted none of it and tried to herd his brother toward his Dodge, but he didn't budge.

"I got picked up for parole violation 'cause your little sister squealed on me!" snarled the biker.

"My sis... brother did what? Who told you that?"

Hammer glowered at A.J. "Why don't you tell him, ratfink?"

Taken aback by Hammer's baseless accusation, A.J. shook his head in disbelief. "I don't know what you're…" He trailed off in mid-sentence. "Oh, no…" He whimpered.

Alarmed, Rick took a nervous glance at his brother.

"The statement…that I gave to the police…"

Rick frowned uncomprehendingly.

A.J. started talking fast as he always did when he was nervous. "After Larson got killed, I told the police how seemingly independent cases were intertwined—the armored car heist, Johnny McBride, breaking-in at my place, me getting kidnapped, the locker key in my pocket. Anyway, one of the police interviewers asked me why I had taken all the clothes I'd worn a few nights ago to the cleaner, and I had to tell him what had happened at Blue Moon!"

A.J. had given detailed descriptions of Hammer's physical features including his imposing physique, gapped front teeth, crooked nose and intricate tattoo designs.

"A.J., it's not your fault that one of the detectives recognized Hammer in your statement," said Rick hoping to stop his brother's blabbering.

"You're gonna regret the day you were born—that goes for both of you," growled Hammer.

"So what're ya gonna do about it, huh? You're now in police custody; you can't touch us," taunted Rick.

"But they can."

Rick turned his eyes to the direction A.J. was pointing and saw the two biker-buddies of Hammer's fast approaching.

Swearing under his breath, he shoved his brother and yelled, "Run!"

The Simon brothers heard Hammer cackle as they started a mad dash to the Power Wagon. "You can run, but you can't hide!"

A.J. shot an angry look at his brother. "We're getting too old for this kind of thing, Rick!"

Inexplicably, Rick felt incredibly alive as a burst of adrenaline coursed through his body.

"Oh, yeah? Watch me!"

Fueled by sheer exuberance, Rick outran his younger brother and the trailing bikers and jumped into his truck, laughing and screaming like a kid on a rollercoaster.